Surviving Norovirus

The norovirus can sneak up on you: You often start off with nausea and stomach cramps, but pretty soon you’re running to the bathroom. The misery lasts two or three days, after which you slowly try to get your strength back. But just as you’re feeling better, the same noxious symptoms hit someone else in your family. Congratulations—you’ve got yourself a norovirus bug in the house.

What Is the Norovirus?

Norovirus, also known as stomach flu, is a virulent illness that strikes hard and fast, and it isn’t pretty: Nausea, diarrhea, and vomiting (sometimes simultaneously) are its hallmarks, and it leaves you weak and debilitated from dehydration (lack of fluids in the body). The virus is transmitted through infected vomit or feces, and it takes only a tiny amount to wreak havoc on your gastrointestinal system. Symptoms usually surface a day or two after exposure.

Where Norovirus Lurks

Most people contract the virus when they touch contaminated surfaces and then put their fingers in their mouth, or when they eat food prepared by someone who has (or has recently had) the bug. Common food culprits include leafy greens (watch out for that salad bar), fresh fruit, and shellfish.

You may have heard about norovirus in connection with cruise ships. While norovirus can strike anywhere, cruise ships are a particularly fertile breeding ground for this bug since passengers are living in close quarters and eating the same contaminated food. Other common settings for outbreaks include college dormitories, day care centers, and nursing homes. But you certainly can get norovirus without being in any of those settings, or being around an infected person.

Dealing With an Attack

While having norovirus may make you feel like you’re dying, the bug usually isn’t life threatening to otherwise healthy people. Young children and the elderly, however, can suffer potentially serious dehydration and even death. "There’s no antiviral drug that targets this virus," says Aileen Marty, MD, FACP, and a professor of infectious diseases in the department of medicine at Florida International University in Miami. "That is why we have to treat the symptoms." Treatment entails replacing lost fluids as quickly as possible. Sports drinks and other rehydration beverages that contain electrolytes (substances like salt, potassium, and calcium in the body) are ideal if the patient can hold them down. Rehydrating with just water is not recommended, Marty advises, as this can cause an electrolyte imbalance. For severe cases of vomiting, it may be necessary to get intravenous hydration at a medical facility. And avoid taking anti-diarrheal drugs, Marty says—there’s no evidence that they work.

Preventing Norovirus

Because there is no vaccine against norovirus, and there is no limit as to how many times you can catch it, it’s important to safeguard against the illness by maintaining excellent hygiene. Thorough, frequent hand washing and safe food preparation are essential. Because the virus can be passed through stool even before an infected person feels sick, and can remain in the stool for up to two weeks after symptoms disappear, all potentially contaminated surfaces must be cleaned with a bleach solution.

Aileen Marty, MD, FACP, reviewed this article.


"Norovirus." Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Accessed April 21, 2014.

Aileen Marty, MD, FACP, Professor, Infectious Diseases, Department of Medicine, Herbert Wertheim College of Medicine, Florida International University, Miami. Email exchange with author. April 24, 2014.

"For Food Handlers: Norovirus and Working With Food." Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Page last reviewed July 26, 2013.